Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shooting the Secretary: The University

If the photos of the Secretary at the Presidency were the most important of the day, the images taken immediately following would be a close second as she would be delivering a speech about American engagement with Africa at a local university. This speech was expected to generate some news both for its content, but also simply due to the fact that it was given in Senegal.

This made the photographic problem simultaneously easy and complex. Easy, because the shots would be straightforward: get a photo of the Secretary of State giving a speech. Complex for two reasons however. First, speech photos are dreadful. You have to shoot dozens of frames to make sure that you get one with the speaker not looking ridiculous. Second, the location might be constraining. I knew, based on the Embassy seating diagram, that there was a row reserved for press so there was a question if I’d be limited to a static location. And finally, lighting. I expected it to be dark and poorly lit in the auditorium (and it was) but I doubted that I’d be able to use flash (or that it would even be viable based on the range). To top it off, due to the range issue, I’d be using (need to use, really) my 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 - a relatively slow lens. To mitigate this, I had my monopod but I still wasn’t sure how this would all shake out.

Her Plan. Um, she’d arrive, walk into the hall, speak for about 45 minutes, get back in her car and leave. As far as I understood it, the only shots I expected were podium shots.

My Plan. I assumed that I would be limited to the press seating section for my shots, so my plan was simply to balance my camera on my monopod and the seat in front of me and just shoot until I had an acceptable shot. I wasn’t anticipating the opportunity for anything other than a podium shot, but I would still be carrying my second body with the wide angle just in case. The flashes remained in the bag hower.

What actually happened. Upon arrival at the University of Chiekh Anta Diop, the Secretary got out of her car and went backstage while the press went into auditorium, house left. I went up to the press area and found out - to my happy surprise - that it was intended for the print folks - shooters were free to roam. Even with that freedom however, I would still be limited - the house was packed and the Fox News crew had set up in the main aisle. I sure didn’t want to get in the way of their shots and, as much as I wanted to work close to the podium, it was going to be hard to fight my way down there, so it looked like I’d be shooting from the house left wing and the back of the house.

As it happened, those angles were adequate. I’ll address it a little further down in the photo section, but since my problem was pretty simple (shoot until you don’t have a photo of the Secretary of State looking bad) I basically set up my monopod and shot away.

This was the first time that having an experienced PJ in the room worked to my benefit. I had shot several dozen frames and some quick chimping had shown me that I had basically gotten the shot, so I was ready to relax. However, I noticed that the AP photographer would make sure to shoot a burst whenever the Secretary became more animated and started using her hands to gesture. I didn’t take the same angle as the AP, but I did the same thing and got some better photos because of it.

While my House Left angle was relatively safe, after a while I was confident that I had gotten every shot I could from that angle. I’d have liked to have gone to the front of the house, but it still just seemed too crowded, so I decided go to the back of the house and see what kind of shots I could get from there. Even with the 400mm it was tough to really get a good composition, although looking back on it, I probably should have worked that location more. At the time though, I didn’t think too much of it and decided to move back to the wing and start shooting the audience. I was somewhat disappointed - the audience was overwhelmingly male, Senegalese and somberly dressed making it difficult to get an interesting shot, but a couple of at least decent shots presented themselves.

Speaking of.

Here you get an idea of what goes into shooting a speaker at the podium. These are the three best out of a couple hundred frames. There is one big problem with these photos though. Notice it? Look behind her - see the guys standing behind her (technically backstage) screwing up my background? I suppose I could blame the university for not providing a better backdrop, but that’s no excuse. I should note that our AP friend shot this in such a way as to eliminate those guys. Now, doing so forced you to take a pretty weird angle and have an awkward composition. but, did you get the shot or not? I did not get the shot.

This isn’t too bad. In some ways I like this composition taken from the back of the house more than ones above from the wings as it establishes the scene a little better (and the background is cleaner). The drawback is that the Secretary is much more static and less expressive in these shots.

Crowd shots. Like I said, it was difficult to get anything too interesting although I’m reasonably pleased with the repetition of the Senegalese men in the first shot and the contrast of the pensive diplomats in the second.

Eventually, the Secretary wrapped up her speech - and it was here that I began to fumble. As she came towards the end of her speech, I began to prep my gear so that I would be ready to move: monopod back in the bag, cameras on the shoulders, that sort of thing. My initial understanding was that she would depart the stage immediately, get back into her motorcade, and proceed to her last stop of the day. Instead, she remained on stage chatting with members of the university and working the crowd that had gathered around. It was here that not having the instincts of a professional photojournalist failed me - I should have closed in and worked close but instead stood off and worked with the long lens. But even as I was shooting, I knew that my backgrounds really weren’t that clean. Then, to further waste the moment, I decided to move back outside to get shots of her entering her motorcade. As it happened however, she must have spent a good five minutes more inside (so I wasted a further opportunity) and then, when she came out, I was at a terrible angle and basically got nothing out of all of this but fodder for the recycling bin.

As we pulled away, I knew I had missed the potential of making some unique shots and my mood began to match the rapidly darkening skies of the first serious rains of the year in Dakar. It was not an auspicious omen for the last stop.

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